On the pursuit of happiness

Many of Jefferson's ideas have a lasting legacy, but perhaps none more so than the pursuit of happiness. That has become the essence of the American dream and the point of middle-class existence worldwide. This, rather than all the men are born equal, have become self-evident. 

However, the celebration of the pursuit of happiness obscured complicated questions on how to be happy. We may assume that the answer is straightforward, that happiness comes from the acquisition of more: Bigger houses, cars, clothes, jewellery and the like, along with more and more power over others. But both scientific explanations and our everyday experience point to the opposite. Happiness, we know, comes not from Dopamine, a hormone that gets released when we 'achieve' something, but from Serotonin and Oxytocin, those which get released from making others happy and bonding with them. The kick from buying something bigger only lasts until someone with even bigger something turns up, which invariably happens as we climb the social ladder. In more than one sense, heaven isn't really up there but rather in remaining grounded.

So, what to make of the happiness culture? Why do we live in the eternal hope of achieving happiness, a state which, by definition, confirms only the lack of it? For the acquisitive happiness, the only route to it lies through the misery of others. Our state of happiness is not unlike the people of the Omelas, that La Guin story which presents the pursuit in such stark terms, where happiness is only sustained by the existence of unhappy people. And, that's the problem with this idea of the 'pursuit' - there is actually no happiness in the Elysium because one must only define the fortune against the backdrop of other's misfortune. Nothing else would really matter.

Therefore, there are two models before us. One is the biological model, borne out before us by our lived experience when we truly feel happy watching other people's happiness; the other is a cultural one, which equates happiness with what we possess and revolve around a norm about who should be considered happy. As individuals, we balance the two by drawing increasingly narrower circles around us, trying to generate that happiness feeling by making happy only the members of our own families, at once producing the Oxytocin that we need to survive and not being laughed at for do-gooding foolishness.

In reality, therefore, the pursuit of happiness is really a pursuit of selfishness, a culturally driven search for a biologically awkward mode of living. And, this search is the foundation of the modern politics, because only by getting everyone to buy into this particular idea of happiness, one can truly limit the agency of small people. That individuals have no power other than to withdraw their two inalienable attributes - their labours and their desires - was well understood by the great leaders who stood up to the powerful. But no one can truly appreciate their own ability to change the world as long as they remain locked in to this all-encompassing and unfulfillable pursuit of fulfilment. The wrong idea of happiness that we live by, as it turns out, is an essential ingredient of our misery.

But the limits to power, one hopes, will come from within. The circle of selfishness is self-corrupting, as it helps to pass on to succeeding generations the opposite set of values other than are needed even to pursue happiness of this wrong kind. The urge to look after the acquisitive happiness of our offspring makes each succeeding generation a little too entitled, a little too idle, until this sloth and idleness break the very chain of acquisitive ability. It is the Rome problem, arising from within and prosperity rather than from without and outsiders, a historical illustration perhaps of where the pursuit of happiness eventually leads to.

   

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